Deep Breath

Onwards we go, headlong into another new era, and we’re very much in the home straight now. For what seems like the dozenth time since Moffat took over, we’ve got a new title sequence and theme tune, and remarkably they’re both still in use at the time of writing. I’ve never been a fan of this high-pitched and heavily synthesised iteration of the music, but the titles have grown on me over the years. I love those eyebrows so much.

I guess it helps that I’m such a fan of the person those eyebrows are attached to. It’s hard to remember a time when I didn’t see Capaldi and think “Doctor”, but he was very much still Malcolm Tucker when I first saw this, especially with his hair that short. I think I recall being slightly worried that he wouldn’t live up to my expectations following this episode, but I thought he was great when I rewatched it tonight, so maybe it’s better when you know where his Doctor is heading – post-regenerative funk is often disorientating and rarely representative of how each actor will play it for the bulk of their time.

It’s a feature length episode to kick things off, and to be fair, it kind of feels like it. All the comedy capers with Strax and Clara were clearly padding, but pretty good nonetheless, and the Paternosters were brilliant throughout, as usual. The story was very bitty – much like the modified clockwork droids, a lot of the individual components were good, but it lacked a little cohesion. Ultimately though, it was all just a framework in which to tell a character-based story, and it’s all about the Twelfth Doctor figuring out who he is, and rebooting his relationship with Clara.

On that note, the one thing that didn’t quite make sense was how freaked out Clara is by the whole concept of regeneration, and by the sight of the Doctor as an old man. This initial rejection of the new incarnation would have worked with virtually any other companion – and indeed has with several of them – so it’s odd that they decided to do it with the only one who’s met all thirteen of him.

I liked that they addressed the issue of the Doctor having the face of a previous guest star. We’re told there’s a reason he subconsciously chose it, and I remember harbouring a theory that it might have been modelled on John Frobisher instead of Caecilius. Like Frobisher, the Doctor exhibits some morally dubious behaviour in the pursuit of a good cause, such as seemingly leaving Clara behind to be killed, causing her to hold her breath until she passes out and hallucinates Courtney Woods. It’s left ambiguous in the end as to whether the Doctor throws the Half Face Man to his death or simply drives him to suicide, but I don’t think either option is entirely ethically sound.

In true Moffat style, just when everything’s wrapped up there’s a couple of extra surprises tagged on at the end, starting with the Matt Smith cameo. I was working on the Saturday night that this aired, and I remember seeing his name trending on Twitter and wondering why, but thankfully I’d forgotten about it by the time I got home and caught up. Lovely to see him, and the purpose is clearly to reassure the kiddies at home, as well as Clara, that having a new Doctor is going to be fine. I like it, but I’m not sure it was necessary to do that, and I wonder if it undermined Capaldi a bit.

And then there’s the first of many post-scripts with Missy in Heaven. I knew right from this first cameo that she was The Master, but then in retrospect I’m not sure there was any real effort made to conceal it – otherwise why give her name as “Missy” straight away? It’s hardly the most fiendish pseudonym she’s ever concocted.

This is one of those write ups where almost everything I’ve said is negative, and yet it’s still an episode that I really like. I think that Capaldi is, for me, one of those Doctors who makes every scene they’re in better just by being there, so take it as read for the remainder of this blog that my default position is an overall thumbs up, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

RATING: 8

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The Name of the Doctor

Two prequels to this one: one released before the episode but set after it, and the other released after the episode but set before it. Timey-wimey…

She Said, He Said: We find Clara wandering around on a set filled with old props, pondering the nature of the Doctor and how she has to avoid failing in love with him. We then see that she’s actually talking to a completely inanimate Doctor, and the topic moves on to how she now knows exactly who he is, so I assumed that this was one of her trips through his timeline. But then the second half of the short sees the Doctor in the exact same scenario, recapping the whole Clara arc in front of a stationary version of her, so it’s just a narrative device.

Clarence and the Whispermen: In one of the most disturbing contributions to the Who canon, a condemned man (presumably the eponymous Clarence) is visited in his cell by three scary faceless creatures (presumably the eponymous Whispermen), who force some Gallifreyan co-ordinates into his memory, and as a result he’ll survive the execution but never sleep again. It’s pretty dark, it has to be said.

Blimey, that was a lot of preamble. Here’s a little more. This is one of very few episodes from the Moffat era that I’ve already watched more than once, as it was part of the warm-up on the day of the 50th. After my enthusiasm for the show was at an all-time low throughout most of Series 7, the finale couldn’t have whetted my appetite for the anniversary special more.

I mean, we start on bloody Gallifrey, and we see Hartnell stealing the TARDIS. Holy shit. Then there’s Colin, Tom, Sylv dangling from his umbrella in Iceworld, Pertwee driving Bessie, Troughton running around in a fur coat and Davison trapped in that big net thing from Arc of Infinity… All seven of the classic Doctors, in full physical motion in some form or other, all within the pretitles. I repeat: holy shit. It blew my mind at the time, and that was before I’d seen the entirety of the classic series. There’s even a reference to the Valeyard later on, for fuck’s sake.

This is the anniversary special starting six months early, but the more recent mythology is represented too, with the Paternoster Gang playing a pivotal role in arranging the “conference call”, which entails getting off their tits, to reunite with Clara and introduce her to River Song. Her chronology was quite confusing at first – it wasn’t until much later that we learn that this is post-Silence in the Library for her, and therefore she is in fact dead. I thought I’d missed a story where she and the Doctor had split up or something – I don’t really see why we’re supposed to think they can’t just have another regular adventure with a version of her from some point in her past, which is what this story seemed to imply.

It’s an episode that manages to combine tension and pace, constantly developing and progressing, while still unmistakably all being preamble for a handful of big revelations. It’s arguably better the second (or third) time around, when you know where it’s heading and can just enjoy the ride. And when you don’t mistakenly think that one of the big revelations is that the Doctor’s real name is “Please”, given that that’s what he says immediately before the door to his tomb opens.

Unsurprisingly, Richard E Grant is brilliant, far surpassing both Dr Simeon and the version of The Great Intelligence from The Snowmen now that they’re one and the same. As alluded to earlier, the Whispermen were fantastically creepy, to the extent that the idea could have been used for something more substantial than some one-off henchmen. I can’t decide whether TGI sacrificing his very existence in order to ruin the Doctor’s life is deliciously evil and deranged, or simply a bit of an overreaction to being defeated by him like four times.

Of course, as soon as he dived into the Doctor’s time-corpse, and we saw him in all the scenarios we saw Clara in earlier, it was obvious where she was going to end up. While I didn’t quite buy the soufflĂ© metaphor, it was a very satisfying answer to the mystery, as it means that “our” Clara – the one we’ve been following since The Bells of Saint John – is the original Clara. She chooses to become the impossible girl in order to save the Doctor, and that’s something that goes a long way to turning her from a slightly distant enigma to a relatable protagonist.

There are obviously a few logical niggles (it’s perhaps best not to contemplate how the fact she knew about Asylum of the Daleks and The Snowmen makes this a bit of a predestination paradox), but they’re easy to ignore in the face of such a satisfying and resonant emotional conclusion. The same goes for the Doctor and River – much like with the Paternoster lot’s conference call, the only rational explanation for the Doctor being able to interact with her ghost is that it’s all slightly magic, but who cares the scene between them is so good?

And then finally there’s the biggest reveal of them all – one that we never knew was coming, but that managed to trump the one we’d been waiting all series for. It’s still as spine-tingling and glorious as ever. I remember being utterly blown away by the idea that there could be an extra incarnation of the Doctor, outside of the conventional numerical system, but I bought into it straight away. Without actually spelling out what terrible thing this version did to deserve being disowned, you know exactly what it is, and it’s the perfect teaser for the 50th. Now that we know just how brilliant John Hurt’s Doctor is, it’s even better.

RATING: 9

HALF-SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 6.38

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 6.46

  • Seasons/Series watched: 33 of 36
  • Stories watched: 239 of 275
  • Individual episodes watched: 798 of 839

Oh crikey, that’s a really bad average score, the second worst of all time behind Colin’s season of 45-minute snoozefests. There are a handful of good episodes, but a disproportionate amount of stinkers, and this finale is the only truly great episode to compensate. Throughout the modern era, each Doctor’s third series has been his worst – although it’s definitely not Matt Smith’s fault, as almost all of the problems have been with the arcs and the companions.

The night is always darkest before the dawn. With The Name of the Doctor, my least favourite portion of the revived series is already over – it’s the first huge step forward towards a new golden age. The very next episode is the dazzling centrepiece, but I’ve got a few minor diversions to get through first, to further build the anticipation for the big anniversary party…

The Crimson Horror

Another one of those that I vaguely remembered, but without any of the details. For instance, I could have sworn this was set in a sweets factory, rather than a match factory that sounds like it should be a sweets factory. I also knew that this was a Paternoster Gang story, but not just how integral they were to it.

You don’t even see the Doctor or Clara until a third of the way through, with the gang acting as the main protagonists, especially Jenny. It’s her who infiltrates the factory and discovers what’s going on, finally stepping out of the shadows of her easier-to-define colleagues to show what she’s capable of. Thankfully, as well as her special skills of lock-picking and kung fu, she’s also got the charisma to pull off the role of Doctor surrogate, laying all the groundwork to set up the plot that he’d normally be responsible for.

All this was in aid of a shock reveal that the Doctor had been there all along, locked up by a blind woman and dyed red. In fact, he had done all the same investigations as Jenny, which were conveyed to us in a neat little montage that also contained references to Tegan – no idea why, but I liked it. The Doctor then de-reds himself by locking himself in an airing cupboard, a process that’s never fully explained, which is a little distracting.

After this exciting opening half, the story starts to stall a little thereafter, despite a strong villain in Diana Rigg. It just sort of plods along with a lot of running back and forth, broken up by the occasional bit of hiding and watching, and doesn’t really get going beyond that. It all relies on the key revelation that the mysterious Mr Sweet is a parasitic leech clamped to Diana Rigg’s tit; I can’t remember how I reacted to it at the time, but the earlier foreshadowing where she sprinkles salt down her cleavage reminded me of the twist, so I didn’t feel the impact this time.

Still, it’s all perfectly pleasant, if a little pedestrian, and any episode with Strax in it has to have something going for it, especially when he’s rebuking his horse for getting lost. His role as the Doctor’s mercenary is a little problematic, though – it’s OK for him to be gleeful as he’s lasering henchmen to death, but it’s a little weird that the Doctor’s happy to have such carnage take place in his name.

We saw very little indeed of Clara in this episode, which doesn’t really do much to flesh out her still nascent character. She spends the majority of the time preserved in a jar, but she does get a little coda at home, where the kids she babysits have discovered she’s a time traveller and demand to go with her. This is why companions shouldn’t go home between adventures – it makes life complicated for them, and now we’ve got to sit through a story with those two brats in tow.

RATING: 6

The Snowmen

First of all, another new title sequence? Come off it now. I very much approve of the Doctor’s face making an appearance, but I’m afraid I was too distracted by the godawful new music to notice anything else. It’s way too busy, it’s like we’re back in the 80s. There’s a new TARDIS interior too, creating a clear line in the sand as if it were the start of a new series – it’s most peculiar that this happens when we’re supposedly mid-series. Having Christmas in the middle feels wrong, and contributes to the feeling that these are more like two separate mini-series.

Most notably, this is the first time Clara appears in a companion role, even though it’s not actually Clara. It’s a lot easier to get on board now that I’ve got to know her; at the time, the big mystery overshadowed absolutely everything, and it was impossible to know what to make of her without even knowing her motives. But now you can see that she’s just an inquisitive, brave and intelligent young woman, like any other companion, and it suddenly feels reassuringly conventional.

Well, other than the fact that she alternates between the slightly too posh sounding cockney you’d get in Mary Poppins, and actually being Mary Poppins. You’re never sure which is the pretend life and which is the real one, but nevertheless it’s fun to see her relationship with the Doctor develop. Not so keen on the snogging, which felt like they were just ticking off that particular Doctor/companion combo to get it out of the way. It did seem a bit sudden for the Doctor to go from a total recluse to giving the TARDIS key to someone he barely knows, so it must have been a hell of a kiss.

Another fun twist – and one that’s potentially quite apt to be revisiting given recent announcements – is that the Doctor’s part of a big gang again, with the Paternosters proving to be great company once more. Strax is the best one – the joke of him wanting to destroy everything never gets old, and the memory worm skit was a tremendous way to disguise a Chekov’s organism. Despite all the Doctor grumpiness, there was a high dosage of comedy throughout the episode – there was even time for a Sherlock parody, complete with sound-alike music. I admire the audacity to pull off such a meta joke on such a big stage.

With so much character work going on, the big returning villain was rather low down in the mix, and it left me yearning for a little more from the Great Intelligence. Richard E. Grant is much more suited to being a villain than being the Doctor, but I’d completely forgotten that he’s not actually TGI until right at the end, he’s just his servant for most of the story. It didn’t do a great job of explaining who or what TGI is – I had to wait until I’d seen The Web of Fear until I fully understood it, and indeed fully understood the references to the London Underground in this one.

The eponymous Snowmen are barely in it either; this episode was less about the scares and more about the human drama. That’s OK, because it does that well, but it means that the plot is a little undernourished. In the denouement, the Doctor is completely defeated with no escape plan, until all the snow miraculously turns into water and the Great Intelligence fucks off. The Doctor had no idea that was going to happen, and had no part in making it happen, so it feels very convenient.

Ah, but then again, now that we know that this version of Clara only exists because our Clara went back into the Doctor’s timeline to help defeat the Great Intelligence, the fact that her death helps solve the problem makes it part of the bigger story. This is what was meant to happen all along – it’s our Clara defeating the Great Intelligence in The Name of the Doctor by defeating him in The Snowmen. Our Clara made this happen.

My brain hurts.

RATING: 8

The Great Detective

Another little one today, with the most recent specially-filmed Children In Need special – the show has only contributed trailers or previews of forthcoming episodes since then, which is a bit of a shame. The version I watched was bookended with pieces to camera from Matt and Jenna (Louise), which were quite funny and meta.

They were probably the most entertaining part, as the scene itself was a little too dark and moody for my liking. The Doctor is just lurking grumpily in the background for the most part, having apparently retired since we last saw him. Still, Strax is always good value, and I enjoyed his declaration of war against the Moon. Otherwise, a little bit dull, and it doesn’t particularly whet the appetite for the upcoming Christmas cheer.

RATING: 6

It feels odd to do two minisodes in a row, so I’ll bulk this out and save myself some time later by also watching the other two prequels for The Snowmen

Vastra Investigates: In which the eponymous lizardwoman attempts to shock a Victorian gentleman with tales of aliens, ancient civilizations and lesbianism. Only the latter works. The Doctor is still in a grump apparently, off sulking in his box. Again, the comedy stuff is good, but it fails to get me excited for the next story – the only bit of plot is that it’s snowing but there aren’t any clouds, which is hardly the biggest headfuck the show’s ever pulled off.

The Battle of Demons Run: Two Days Later: This is a strange thing – clearly set between A Good Man Goes To War and The Snowmen, and indeed set earlier than the two other prequels, and yet it wasn’t released until the second half of Series 7 started. Anyway, this is basically Vastra as the Doctor, recruiting Strax to be her new companion. He got better after being clearly killed off in his first appearance. At the end, he seems delighted at the idea that he’ll get to wear a dress, and I’m disappointed that this thought wasn’t followed through for all his subsequent appearances.

A Good Man Goes to War

Prequel: That big blue wheeler-dealer chap sells a Judoon’s brain to some hooded figures, before attempting to verify the rumours that they’d kidnapped the child of someone connected to the Doctor. That’s about it, so they pad it out with some very slow captions trailing the TX date.

Really, the only preview that you need is the cliffhanger from the previous episode, and the sense of urgency and epicness that runs throughout this story does not disappoint. I’m vehemently opposed to the notion of chopping a season in half – the eventual workload solution they found of simply dropping an episode a year yields much more satisfying results – but at least they made the format work to their advantage by having such a huge, gobsmacking episode to provide the mini-finale.

I’d forgotten entirely about the pre-titles encounter with the Cybermen, now thankfully rid of their Cybus branding, which is a step in the right direction. I love the fact that Rory got to be the big hero we see confronting them – his story across the last season and a half is that of someone stepping out of the background to fulfil his true potential, and that’s often driven by the desire to protect his wife and/or newly-discovered child. It’s corny, but it really works.

Meanwhile, the Doctor is raising an army by taking us to as many different locations as the budget will allow, and Moffat is careful to make the build-up in this episode as comedic as possible, to balance the heavy stuff to come. River’s punchline to the Stevie Wonder story is one of my favourite gags the show has ever done, and the concept of a Sontaran nurse is just brilliant. It will never not be funny to see Strax politely inform people of his intention to kill them, and he’s by far the most promising of all the new allies this episode introduces.

When the Doctor’s finally ready to sort this shit out, his supposed triumph is a joy to watch unfold. Moffat pulls off a trick that I more readily associate with RTD, of throwing as many returning characters or species on screen as possible – he did it in his first finale, of course, but I don’t think he ever quite did it in the same way as this again. Here we get fuckloads of Silurians and Judoon (thus answering my question from the other day about whether it was rare for Moff to bring back RTD creations), as well as unexpected and possibly unwarranted cameos from “Danny Boy” and Captain Avery, characters from two of the least good episodes of the Moffat era thus far.

Then the episode’s third phase – the Doctor’s fall – kicks in, and bloody hell, things get intense towards the end. I was surprised to see Strax as one of the casualties, given that he’s about to become a recurring character, but then I guess death isn’t much of a barrier when you’re talking about a race of clones in a time travel show. More expected was that the sweet and brave Doctor fangirl didn’t survive the encounter, and the realisation of what his name means to her people hits the Doctor – and us – hard.

I’m not sure I quite agree with River’s wider assessment that the Doctor is on dangerous ground and needs to mend his ways. It rang true when the Tenth Doctor went through a similar identity crisis, but the Eleventh Doctor so far has been firmly committed to non-violence wherever possible, and has largely resisted abusing his powers. But then, dramatically speaking, you need to drag him down before you pick him up again, and the revelation about River/Melody – as well as being very cleverly done – ended this rollercoaster on a high.

It’s hard to relive the impact that it had at the time; the promise that the mystery will be resolved is always in the background of this episode, which means it loses a certain something when you know full well what’s coming. But it still managed to make me a little emotional, due to the Doctor’s joy of learning that Melody would eventually be just fine, and the knowledge that he dedicates so much of his life to keeping her safe and happy. Although it must be a bit weird to be shagging your best friends’ daughter, especially if you’ve held her (and indeed spoken to her) as a baby.

Nevertheless, it’s a stunning and shocking episode, and well worth revisiting regardless of the lessened impact of the big reveal. My lack of memory of the finer details of these episodes is really paying off now, as they’re able to surprise me all over again. For example, I still don’t quite remember who Madame Kovarian is and what her motives are; you don’t find out very much here, and instead it’s nicely set up to be the mystery that runs through the second half of the season.

One thing that I did remember though, and that still remains as funny as ever, is the huge high-stakes drama ending with the next episode’s title being revealed, in huge impactful letters, as “LET’S KILL HITLER”. After all that the episode had put me through the first time I watched it, I ended up unable to process any of the emotional connotations due to five minutes of solid laughter.

RATING: 9

It feels wrong to be doing the milestone stuff at this juncture, but nevertheless:

HALF-SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 9

  • Seasons/Series watched: 31.54 of 36
  • Stories watched: 218 of 275
  • Individual episodes watched: 777 of 839

I hadn’t realised how good the first half of this series was. I mean, I knew I liked it, but wow, just look at that average rating. My memory is that the second half doesn’t quite live up to it, and will most likely bring the overall score down, but unfortunately I’m going to have to wait to find out. It’s as galling now as it is then – just when you’re ramped up to maximum excitement about Doctor Who, it disappears for a while. Worse still, the filling of this Series 6 sandwich is not particularly appetising.